Chernobyl: History Of A Tragedy – Europe Nearly Became Uninhabitable

KIEV, Ukraine -- A compelling history of the 1986 disaster and its aftermath presents Chernobyl as a terrifying emblem of the terminal decline of the Soviet system.


Liquidators, as they were called, wore thin lead aprons to clean up the radiated materials. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) says some 350,000 of the liquidators in the initial plant cleanup received average total body radiation doses of 100 millisieverts. That’s a dose equal to about 1,000 chest x-rays and about five times the maximum dose permitted for workers in nuclear facilities.

These days, European travel agencies offer trips to Chernobyl for as little as €500.

Tourists are promised safety, comfort and the ghoulish thrill of visiting the site where, at 1.23am on 26 April 1986, an explosion at the nuclear plant’s reactor No 4 created the largest peacetime nuclear disaster in history.

The adjacent city of Prypiat, which grew up around Chernobyl, is a latter-day Pompeii.

It has remained uninhabited since the Soviet authorities belatedly ordered the evacuation of its population 36 hours after the plant first began spewing lethal radiation into the atmosphere.

When, in 2015, the Ukrainian parliament ordered the removal of all Communist party statues from the country’s streets and squares, Prypiat and the 18-mile radius exclusion zone around Chernobyl became a “time capsule” and a “communist preserve”.

There, Lenin and co still gaze down triumphantly on the desolation.

In this compelling history of the disaster and its aftermath, Serhii Plokhy presents Chernobyl as a terrifying emblem of the terminal decline of the Soviet system.

The turbine test that went catastrophically wrong was not, he argues, a freak occurrence but a disaster waiting to happen.

It had deep roots in the party’s reckless obsession with production targets and in the pliant nuclear industry’s alarming record of cutting corners to cut costs.

Plokhy’s well-paced narrative plunges the reader into the sweaty, nervous tension of the Chernobyl control room on the fateful night when human frailty and design flaws combined to such devastating effect.

Men with dozens of years’ experience in the nuclear industry were confounded when they found themselves unable to arrest the rising temperature in the reactor and an enormous explosion rocked the plant.

After crucial hours passed in confusion and denial, they acknowledged that the core of the reactor was on fire and that it was emitting radiation into the night sky through a gaping hole in the roof.

The authorities’ subsequent attempts to contain the fire were a signature Soviet mix of improvisation, heroism and ineptitude.

Exposing themselves to lethal levels of radiation, helicopter crews made repeated flights over the burning reactor, dropping 5,000 tonnes of sand, clay and lead in an ultimately successful bid to extinguish the fire.

In so doing, they prevented the very real possibility of a second much larger explosion that might have rendered the entire European continent uninhabitable.

Woefully misjudging the scale of the disaster, the Kremlin insisted that the Ukrainian authorities go ahead with the organisation of the May Day parade in central Kiev just as radiation levels in the city were spiking.

Crowds lined the streets to cheer the achievements of Soviet socialism while their leaders, who knew of the explosion only 80 miles away, looked down on families oblivious to the danger.

With both radiation readings and the demand for information in western Europe rising and Ukrainian hospitals admitting hundreds of patients suffering from radiation sickness, the Kremlin finally broke its silence almost three days after the accident.

The public clamour for detailed information about the threat to health quickly proved unstoppable.

On the brink of glasnost, Chernobyl helped prise open the vice of Soviet censorship, forcing the regime to publicly confront its failings and their dreadful consequences for the country.

If the Soviet command economy was the ultimate villain at Chernobyl, it came into its own in the Herculean clean-up operation.

Close to 600,000 Soviet citizens, many of them army reservists, were mobilised at great personal risk to gather up radioactive debris scattered by the explosion, demolish irradiated villages and move contaminated soil.

The military buried the “Red Forest”, a four-square-mile expanse of pine trees that had turned red after absorbing radiation.

The clean-up was crowned by the construction of a metal and concrete “sarcophagus” over the entire reactor.

Plokhy gives a balanced and sympathetic account of the experiences of the senior scientists, engineers and politicians who extinguished the reactor fire, organised the evacuation of the region and contained the radioactive contamination.

Yet the firefighters, reservists, teachers, farmers, doctors and schoolchildren caught up in the disaster have only walk-on roles in his narrative.

The Belorussian Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich’s harrowing symphony of interviews about the disaster Chernobyl Prayer:

A Chronicle of the Future contains a rich trove of sources that here go mostly untapped.

Plokhy’s most penetrating chapters deal with the political fallout.

Attempts by Moscow to downplay design flaws in the reactor and to make scapegoats of a handful of managers and operators failed to reassure public opinion in a new era of open discussion.

Chernobyl, Plokhy writes, “ended one era and initiated another”.

It helped to transform the slow-burn of Soviet environmental protests into an explosive form of eco-nationalism.

Where Ukrainian intellectuals had once embraced nuclear power as an emblem of modernity, they now shunned it as a baleful symptom of Soviet imperialism.

The poet Ivan Drach, one of the leaders of the democratic movement Rukh, later recalled that “Chernobyl roused our souls, showing us in real terms that we were on the edge of an abyss”.

The only way to safeguard Ukraine from a repeat of the disaster was independence from Moscow.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was powered by a wave of popular revolts in the non-Russian republics.

The catalyst of the Ukrainian revolt was reactor No 4.

Source: The Guardian

Comments

grycar said…
Eschatological Gifts of the quagmire of evil and stupidity,
The Soviet Union or a vision of the past.

In other words, if something can go wrong,
given enough time it must.

This was and is cultural, way of life,
issue recognized and predicted by Taras Shevchenko,
Yurij Lypa, Mychalo Myxnovsky,
Evhen Kovalets, Stephan Bandera
and countless other Ukrainian Nationalists,
Patriots and men of virtue who well understood the consequences
of moronic Utopian socialist empire building
schemes by imbacills.

In the begging and end, this is a national issue
of survival and a better life buttressed by virtue
and individual freedom.

What took place was and is, empirical, witness
of evil which is always ontholocialy related to
stupidity.

The reason Empires die and nations last.

The wages of sin, irresponsibility and the embrace of stupidity, is death.

Or he who lasts wins.